The Gabba was baked in the late afternoon sunshine for a crucial clash between two top-eight teams with their destinies in their own hands. The AFL did the right thing pencilling in this game when they did, as the path was clear for both sides. There was to be no waiting on other results, no algorithms needing to be calculated, just two teams eager to continue to prove themselves, just like they had done all season long.
So, in the misty glow of an early Brisbane evening, could the Lions knock off an improved St Kilda outfit and claim a top-two finish? Could the finals-bound Saints claim another big scalp on the way to September?
Brisbane vs. St Kilda. Here’s what happened.
Oh, and one more thing before we dive into the review. Last week, I had the pleasure of covering the “other” game that happened on the suddenly newsworthy Saturday night. And for the most part, I was happy with the review I’d written. Until the feedback started rolling in. Suggesting that I didn’t talk enough about the victors, spending most of my time focusing on where Geelong went wrong, rather than where the Saints went right. And in truth, that criticism was warranted.
So on Monday morning, I specifically requested this game, for several reasons. First, to right the wrongs of last week’s piece. Second, because the feedback was right. Too often, St Kilda is overlooked by mainstream media because they’re not a “big” enough club to warrant such attention. I hope this piece provides some relief to those long-suffering Saints fans. Because your club deserves the attention. And for the Brisbane supporters reading this, I feel the same for you. The Victorian bubble that clearly exists hasn’t been fair to you either. Please enjoy.
THE BACK STORY
Let’s cut right back to the simple stuff. This was, without any shadow of a doubt, the most important season in the coaching career of Chris Fagan. For so long, he’d managed to get his charges to the very pointy end of the season only to inevitably stumble at one of the final hurdles. For all their home-ground advantages, all their home-and-away success, the Lions had never even made it to the last Saturday in September, and the tag of underachievers has been wafting over the Gabba for too long.
So to say that 2023 was important would be like saying Froot Loops are “a little” unhealthy. Thankfully, the Lions have taken all before them, and are arguably now the favourites to hoist the trophy, given their exploits in recent weeks. Playing with a ferocious appetite to prove the doubters wrong, Brisbane enters the final round knowing that victory gifts them a top-two finish, which is vital for those sides located outside the Victorian bubble.
Speaking of proving the doubters wrong, we come to the rampaging Saints. When Ross Lyon was welcomed back to Moorabbin with open arms, I’d be willing to bet that no one, not even the most one-eyed St Kilda supporter could’ve predicted that Ross the Boss would take the Saints back to finals so quickly. With Max King and Tim Membrey missing large chunks of the season, St Kilda was left with a patchwork forward line of pre-schoolers, and yet somehow, amid all the question marks over their true ability, all the naysayers screaming that their fall would come in a matter of moments, the Saints have marched in, and are ensured of finals football for only the second time in a decade, and a home final still very much in their grasp.
But if you think they’re just happy to be there, think again. This is a team determined to prove themselves on the big stage, determined to show everyone who thought they were mediocre at best that they truly belonged on the big stage, and if all things fell in their favour, determined to hoist the premiership cup for the second time in their history, a feat considered borderline impossible when season 2023 began.
The equation was fairly straightforward for both teams. Collingwood accounted for Essendon last night, and have sewn up the minor premiership as a result. That meant that for Brisbane, a victory would be enough to ensure a top-two finish, and meant that if they played to expectation, they wouldn’t need to leave home until the big dance. A loss would see the Lions have to travel in the first week, either to Melbourne against one of Collingwood or the Demons, or a trip to Adelaide to take on the Power.
For the Saints, with results falling both in their favour, and very much not in their favour last week, a return to September football was guaranteed, but the when, where, and even who are still in question. Depending on other results, a victory could see St Kilda host one of three different opponents, while a loss could see them either travel to Sydney to take on the Swans, or even stay in Melbourne to face the Blues. Crucially, all either team had to do was win. Emerge victorious, and fate was sealed.
It was a hot footy to kick off proceedings, but it was the Saints nailing the fast start. Playing with their now trademark ferocity, St Kilda quickly got things moving in their direction thanks to some wonderful ball movement by foot. Thanks to an errant Josh Dunkley hand, Jade Gresham drew first blood for the Saints, but the Lions settled from there. Only, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the scoreboard, as halfway through the quarter, Brisbane had dominated the inside 50 count, only to have four measly behinds to show for it, one of which was especially egregious, a Joe Daniher shank from the top of the goal square.
Forward pressure was the name of the game for the Lions, as the Saints struggled to get the ball beyond centre. Some Charlie Cameron brilliance gave Brisbane their first goal through Jaspa Fletcher, and St Kilda’s much-vaunted defence was severely under pressure. Had it not been for the waywardness in front of goal, the Lions would be much further ahead, and when Mattaes Phillipou got the Saints back on track, the feeling was that Brisbane had let too many opportunities slip, and their poor goal-kicking had made the contest seem more even than it perhaps otherwise was. As the siren blew for quarter time, the Lions had the smallest of advantages, but, with 10 scoring shots to four, they had missed a chance to put the Saints beyond arms reach early in the contest.
For 15 minutes, the ball lived at one end of the field, but much like the first term, not enough damage was done to warrant such dominance. Through excellent team defence, Brisbane killed every St Kilda defensive rebound, sending the ball straight back inside 50 with authority. Unfortunately, it took until the 12-minute mark for a major to be scored, again thanks to some Charlie Cameron brilliance. The Saints’ defence was holding up, they just couldn’t get a moment’s respite. St Kilda had to resort to long bombs through the centre, as the flank option wasn’t working, and they desperately needed a turnaround.
While it was a much more even second half of the quarter, the Saints couldn’t get themselves going on the scoreboard, as Brisbane’s defenders went to work repelling every St Kilda forward thrust. Skill errors and turnovers were plentiful from both sides, with pressure affecting every disposal. The ball ricocheted between the arcs, with neither side able to assert themselves aerially, and once the ball hit the deck, it was inevitably turned over. With two minutes on the clock, the Lions got their slick ball movement back, and after two horrible misses, Joe Daniher finally nailed his first goal of the evening, sending the Lions into half time with a handy 14-point buffer.
At half time, Josh Battle was subbed out with concussion, and St Kilda’s defensive structure was forced to re-shuffle. And after conceding 15 scoring shots to six in the first half, something drastic needed to change.
Change, it did.
The Saints rolled up their sleeves and got to work, frustrating the Lions with their superior pressure, and when Cam Rayner gave away a silly 50-metre penalty, the door was opened. Thanks to an outstanding effort inside 50 from Mason Wood, St Kilda opened their second-half account through Brad Crouch. The Saints were far more efficient inside 50, and the reaction from Harris Andrews told that exact story.
Just like the second half of the second quarter, Brisbane’s defence had their troubles with turnovers, only this time it was costing them on the scoreboard. When Membrey nailed his first, 15 minutes had passed, and Brisbane’s half-time lead was completely gone. The pressure was immense, and the Lions were, frankly, playing soft. It looked like Brisbane were being too careful, trying too hard not to get injured before the finals, and the Saints pounced. Dan Butler kicked another Saints goal to send the Saints into the lead, and it seemed to spark the Lions into gear. Charlie Cameron took advantage of a gorgeous kick inside 50, Cam Rayner followed up, and when Oscar McInerney took his turn in front of goal, the lead was back to where it should be. Jack Hayes kicked his first with three minutes on the clock, and as the final change arrived, the margin was only a goal in Brisbane’s favour, and we had a game on our hands.
If St Kilda had any chance in this game, they needed to re-take the lead, and quickly, and they got exactly what they wanted with Membrey’s second goal, pulling the margin back to a solitary point. Once again, the threat of a St Kilda upset seemed to spark the Lions into action, and with the next two goals, the margin was back out beyond two goals. The Saints were pressing, but the Lions had the answers, and while they weren’t at their best, Brisbane were doing what they needed to do to secure victory.
Brisbane kept attacking to fully kill the Saints off, but their goal-kicking woes returned, and the next six shots all sailed through the wrong sides of the big sticks. Reality had set in that St Kilda’s fightback was dying before our eyes, but they were being kept on life support thanks to their opponents. The trouble for the Saints was they could get nothing going their way. Everything they tried was cut off by Brisbane’s team defence, and with time ticking down, St Kilda were forced to take riskier and riskier options. Scoreboard pressure was a must, but the Saints simply couldn’t find it.
With two minutes on the clock, Membrey kicked his third, but it was too little, too late. St Kilda just couldn’t put enough power on the scoreboard, and as the final siren blew, the Lions had emerged from the scrapheap victorious to the tune of twelve points, securing a top-two finish and condemning the Saints to a likely away elimination final. The Saints lost no admirers, but the Lions had enough answers to enter September in winning form.
THE KEY PLAYERS
Despite Brisbane’s scoring atrocities keeping St Kilda in the game, this was a very even matchup, and both sides had strong contributors at both ends. Yes, the Lions had more than enough opportunities to pull away in the last quarter, but the plucky Saints held their own without their spearhead, and once the King returns, they have set enough of a foundation to build on come finals time.
So, how did the St Kilda forward line perform without Max King? Brisbane’s defenders were certainly licking their lips at the prospect, and there were danger signs early, with Darcy Wilmot and Harris Andrews filling their hands repeatedly. Wilmot ended the evening with 20 disposals, 12 pressure acts, nine marks and 329 metres gained, while Andrews collected 13 disposals and eight marks for his troubles. When the Saints avoided both these players, it was Tim Membrey who was the main beneficiary, as his three goals were the only multiples from St Kilda, and Jack Hayes did struggle in his return from long-term injuries. Jack Higgins tried hard, but he was well held by Brandon Starcevich, and likewise, Dan Butler couldn’t get his ground game going, kicking just one goal between them.
In the middle, it was an intriguing battle of the big men, and it was All-Australian contender Rowan Marshall who got the chocolates. Oscar McInerney battled hard and had his moments, but around the ground, Marshall dominated, finishing with 24 disposals, 16 contested possessions, seven marks, five tackles and 27 hit-outs. He was also called upon to float behind the ball, and he did so brilliantly, with six defensive rebounds. McInerney was serviceable, had better assistance from Joe Daniher as compared with Jack Hayes, and Brisbane’s midfield was able to get on top, regardless of who won the tap-out.
Although the Lions dominated the inside 50 count, both sides had moments of brilliance from their midfield, it just didn’t click when moving the ball forward for the Saints. The victors had their usual suspects in Lachie Neale, Hugh McCluggage and Dayne Zorko, but they were also ably supported by the likes of Keidean Coleman and Jarrod Berry. Neale finished with 30 disposals (17 contested), 18 pressure acts, 10 clearances, and seven score involvements, McCluggage roamed the wings and collected 21 disposals, while Zorko spent time up forward, finishing with 22 disposals, 12 marks, 10 score involvements, and a crucial first term goal to ease the wayward ship.
In the supporting roles, Berry provided Neale with a valuable 1-2 punch, collecting 25 touches, eight inside 50’s, seven marks, seven tackles and 525 metres gained. Coleman too played one of the best games of his career, and while the stat line of 17 disposals, six marks, six tackles and 426 metres gained doesn’t necessarily paint that picture, it was his work off the ball that will please his coach the most.
Like Brisbane, St Kilda had their usual key players in Brad Crouch and the aforementioned Rowan Marshall, their best ball winners were held down, resulting in the lesser lights needing to step up, which they did.
Crouch was brilliant all day, finishing with 26 disposals and 26 pressure acts, but conversely, skipper Jack Steele didn’t enjoy his usual influence, collecting just 19 touches, only six of which were kicks, 68 metres gained and just one inside 50. Young guns Marcus Windhager and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera took control for some parts of the game, with Windhager amassing 22 disposals, six marks, four inside 50s and 254 metres gained, and Wanganeen-Milera finishing with 20 disposals, five marks and 433 metres gained. Unfortunately, it was simply a case of too little, from too few.
Moving to the area that the Saints were under the most pressure, but performed the most admirably, the defensive 50. Despite the inside 50 count, and the scoring shots, St Kilda’s defenders were sublime, given the circumstances.
Starting with the key posts, it was Josh Battle/Callum Wilkie vs. Joe Daniher, and Zaine Cordy vs. Eric Hipwood. Of the two key forwards, Daniher was clearly the better of the two, and could’ve filled his boots, if he’d put the correct ones on before the game. Battle battled hard until he was subbed out at half time, and yes that pun was very much intended, but Daniher was too big and too strong, finishing with 17 disposals, seven marks, seven score involvements, and 2 goals from five shots. Conversely, Hipwood was a non-factor, thanks in large part to Cordy’s defensive work. Hipwood only touched the ball seven times, and more importantly, was held to just one behind. On the other hand, Cordy collected 12 disposals, six marks, six defensive rebounds, and 232 metres gained.
At the foot of the ball, Charlie Cameron was at his brilliant best, but he simply didn’t have enough small forward partners, aside from the aforementioned Zorko. Cameron ended the evening with two goals from 11 disposals, but he was a consistent threat all game. Several players bobbed up here and there,
For the Saints, there are two players in particular that are deserving of praise, the always-impressive Callum Wilkie and Jack Sinclair. Sinclair spent time through the middle but mainly lived on the half-back flank, and he ran amok, collecting an equal game-high 30 disposals (including 21 kicks, and at 87% disposal efficiency), 10 defensive rebounds, seven marks and 608 metres gained. Wilkie patrolled the air, often as the third man in, and even when matched up in the second half, he registered 21 disposals at 95% efficiency, nine marks, six one-percenters and four defensive rebounds.
That last section could’ve been so much better for Brisbane’s forwards had they actually done what they are paid to do, and while St Kilda’s defence held strong, the goal-to-behind ratio flattered them, however well they defended for 120 minutes.
If you looked at the score line at face value, you’d think the Lions destroyed the Saints in all manner across the field, and it was merely wayward kicking at goal that kept the margin from ballooning past six or seven goals. Now, an argument certainly could be made for that reasoning, but the Saints, without their most valuable puzzle piece forward of the ball, proved that their defensive structure can stand up to even the best teams and that they can do some damage in September.
But really, Brisbane shot themselves in the foot all day. They had more than plenty of chances to kill the Saints off, seemingly in every quarter, and their ridiculous misses meant that they enter finals in decent shape, without showing the AFL world that they are the clear flag favourites. This could’ve been the big shake-up, the final piece of evidence that Chris Fagan’s men had fully arrived, and it did pan out that way, sort of.
I guess that’s the best summation of the game. St Kilda proved themselves capable. Sort of. Brisbane put their flag in the ground. Sort of. The Gabba proved the difference. Sort of. And defence is the key to winning. Sort of.
In the end, was this a good game of football to watch? Sort of.
If you are enjoying the wonderful work of Matt Oman, you could always buy him a coffee to let him know. Click the link below and give him his caffeine fix… he’s been getting a little antsy, lately.